In the largest school choice expansion in Florida history, the House approved a sweeping bill Tuesday to overhaul the state’s school voucher network.
The House voted 79-36 to advance the bill. Sponsored by Republican Rep. Randy Fine, the bill (HB 7045) would repeal the Gardiner Scholarship Program and McKay Scholarship Program and transition students into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.
The repealed programs serve special needs students. The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, a low-income grant, would broaden to include students with special needs and military children.
Speaking on the floor, Fine said students are the bill’s beneficiaries.
Under the proposal, a family of four earning less than $100,000 a year is now eligible for enrollment.
“It’s not about income anymore,” Fine said.
It also increases voucher amounts from 95% to 100% for students in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Family Empowerment Scholarship and Hope Scholarship Program.
Scholarship funds could also be used for internet expenses and digital devices.
“We’re increasing flexibility for people,” Fine said.
Democrats, however, criticized the expansion bill. Primarily, they lamented the lack of accountability and government oversight over private schools.
Democratic Rep. Felicia Robinson on Tuesday proposed an amendment that would’ve required a voucher student to be assigned a teacher who holds a professional certificate.
Republicans rejected the amendment.
“This Legislature should require accountability for anyone or entity that receives taxpayer dollars,” Robinson said Wednesday on the House floor.
Democratic Rep. Allison Tant echoed those concerns.
“There is no way to gauge as a parent,” Tant said of private school programs. “Is this school over here going to provide what they tell me they’re going to provide?
In the Senate, meanwhile, the companion bill (SB 48) also awaits full consideration.
The pair contain distinct differences.
Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill folds five programs into two.
It would transfer students receiving scholarships through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the Hope Scholarship Program to the Family Empowerment Scholarship.
It would also merge the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities and the Gardiner Scholarship Program. Together, tit would be the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program.
The Senate bill further seeks to allow families in all scholarship programs to have education savings accounts, which would permit families to spend the funding on preapproved services, equipment, and private school tuition.
If signed into law, either proposal would take effect July 1.